One of the most common issues we see in both athletes and our general population clients is a lack of ankle mobility - and more specifically, dorsiflexion range-of-motion.
For just about everything in life - from sprinting, to lunging, to squatting - we need a certain amount of dorsiflexion (think of how far the knees can go over the toes, or the positive shin angle one can create without lifting the heel). If we don’t have it, we have to compensate.
One of the most common things we see in people with a lack of dorsiflexion ROM is an “out-toeing,” as this opens up the ankle and allows for them to get to where they need to be - even if it isn’t the most biomechanically correct way to do so.
This out-toeing may also be caused by hip internal rotation deficit (HIRD), so it’s important to assess both. Check out this previous video blog for more information on how to assess for HIRD.
In a more “uncompensated” scenario, an athlete with poor ankle mobility may push through the toe instead of the heel - creating a quad-dominant propulsion in a scenario that should have signification contribution from the posterior chain musculature. In the pictures below, you’ll see that Josh Beckett requires a considerable amount of dorsiflexion range-of-motion to get the job done (push-off without the heel leaving the ground).
This lack of ankle mobility may also negatively affect knee function. Research has shown that a lack of ankle mobility can increase rotational torque at the knee. This falls right in line with the joint-by-joint school of thought with respect to training; if you lock up a joint that should be mobile, the body will look elsewhere to create that range-of-motion.
This definitely applies to what happens to the lumbar spine during squatting in a person with an ankle (or hip) mobility deficit. If someone can’t get sufficient dorsiflexion (or hip flexion and internal rotation), he’ll look to the lumbar spine to get that range of motion by rounding (lumbar flexion). We know that combining lumbar flexion with compressive loading is a big-time no-no, so it’s important to realize that folks with considerable ankle mobility restrictions may need to modify or eliminate squatting altogether.
Take, for example, Olympic lifters who wear traditional Olympic lifting shoes with big heel lifts. This artificially created ankle mobility allows them to squat deeper. While I’m not a huge fan of this footwear for regular folks for squatting, used sparingly, it’s not a big deal.
Other individuals may be better served with hip dominant squat variations (e.g., box squats) that allow them to sit back and not squat quite as deep while they work to improve that ankle mobility and get closer to squatting deeper (with more dorsiflexion). With these individuals, we supplement the more hip dominant squatting with extra single-leg work and plenty of deadlift variations.
The take-home message is that ankle mobility has some far-reaching implications, and it’s important to be able to assess it to determine if it’s the factor that’s limiting someone’s safe and efficient movement.
For more information on how to evaluate and address ankle mobility, check out Assess and Correct.